Reno mural artist is pursuing his passion on a giant canvas
December 19, 2016
The murals adorning business walls all around Reno's Midtown and Wells Avenue have become as much a part of the districts as the eclectic shops and restaurants.
The displays of public art provide an income to a number of artists in the community, if not a straight path to easy street.
Joe C. Rock is one of the most successful muralists in town. He says he's painted about 30 murals in the area since his first project on the wall of Junkee Clothing Exchange in 2011.
After several years of semi-regular mural contracts, he's still not able to make a living at it, but he's not sure he wants to.
"I love what I do," Rock said while working on his latest mural on a new addition to the DeLuxe apartments at the south end of Wells Avenue.
"(When I tried to do only painting) it meant painting a lot of things I don't want to paint. It became like a job" instead of a passion, he said.
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Rock also works a few days a week at Junkee in Midtown, which provides a steady income for basic expenses like rent.
Mural work is sporadic.
He worked on large murals in June and July, then the next several months passed without a painting contract.
In November he started on the DeLuxe wall. He also has a contract to paint the wall on Fire Station No. 1 on 4th Street and he's in talks with the owners of 3rd Street Flats to do a mural on that building.
"So, OK, (I have jobs now) and it's about to snow," he said with a laugh at the irony.
Unlike an artist working on canvases inside a studio, muralists are at the mercy of the weather.
Rock doesn't mind painting in winter weather. His acrylic paints dry quickly and canned paint dries almost instantly, he said. Once precipitation begins to fall, he puts away the acrylics.
However, painting in winter means working during shorter windows.
Rock's current mural on the Deluxe building, a stylized view of Mount Rose, is on a north wall, so the work window is even smaller.
The new building is a 10-unit, modern addition to the apartments in the building that historically housed the DeLuxe Laundry.
A team of investors assembled by real estate agent and consultant Floyd Rowley purchased the property in mid-2015 and began work on the duplex-style addition, which is nearing completion.
One of the investors, Lebo Newman, dropped by to see the progress.
He explained that the City of Reno required a public art component to the project, which was part of the motivation to have the mural painted.
"They don't want graffiti on the wall," Newman said.
Because taggers normally respect walls painted with urban art, cities are increasing using murals to combat graffiti.
"We're really excited to add (our wall) to the city's public art," Newman added. "The city has a lot of things going on in town. We're thrilled to see it.
"I think it's a nice little add on and makes for a nice courtyard."
When contracting for the mural, the building's owners wanted it to depict Mount Rose — a view blocked by the new wall. Rock took their concepts and added his own style.
Once complete, the mural will be a little like viewing Mount Rose through rose bushes, with greenery draping from above, roses along the bottom and the mountains in between.
Rock's unique touches transform the mural from a landscape to urban art. One of the roses forms a face in profile and he's adding cedar rose pinecones and other details as giant accents.
Rock began the Mount Rose mural the day after Thanksgiving and, during the Dec. 13 interview with NNBW, said he expected to be finished in a few days — weather permitting.
"I'm really close," he said, even as storm clouds gathered over the Sierra Nevada which were expected to bring several days of off and on rain, snow, winds and really cold temperatures.
It's a tough business.
Like other contract workers, Rock spends many hours a week working on proposals, sketches, and contracts, — hours spent for which he doesn't get paid unless he's actually awarded a painting contract.
Setting rates also has been a challenge. He's getting better as well as getting better mural contracts, he said.
"Half the jobs I've done around here were free," he said, noting that his early estimates didn't allow for paint costs.
Four years ago, he would have only charged about $400 for murals similar in size to the DeLuxe mural, he said. Now, they run about $2,000.
Rock is self-taught in business and painting.
"I've always been into art in some aspect," said Rock, who has lived mostly in the Midtown/Wells/Plumb area since he moved to Reno with his family when he was 10 years old.
As a small child, he said, his mother had to line the bottom of the walls with butcher paper to save the walls from his crayon art — a prelude to the illegal graffiti that he admits to painting early in life.
"It wasn't until I was 21 and started painting on canvas" that it became a serious pursuit. "One of my friends moved and gave me a bunch of paints and canvas."
He describes his early work as cartoonish. How to paint portraits escaped him.
Then he began looking around at masters, gaining inspiration from Rembrandt and Salvador Dalí, and Leonardo di Vinci.
"I painted the Mona Lisa, like 10 times," he said.
But he didn't paint 10 impersonations of di Vinci's Mona Lisa. They were 10 Joe C. Rock versions that included such elements as Day of the Dead interpretations.
"After I did all that, (painting portraits) just clicked."
Rock continues to paint smaller pieces on canvas and in other formats.
On Saturday, he set up a display at Microsoft Reno for a four-month exhibit as part of a rotating gallery in the building.
Rock's first mural project was in 2011 at Junkee. He asked shop owner Jessica Schneider if he could paint a mural on the outside wall, and showed sketches of what he had in mind.
"I didn't know what I was doing. I still don't know," he joked.
Rock has now painted about 30 murals in the area.
"It's a learning process. I finally got a website. I'm figuring it out for myself. I get advice when I can from people I admire."
And he continues to paint.
"I'm passionate. It makes it all worthwhile."
For more information about Rock's art, go to http://www.joecrockart.com/.